by Amber Michaëlle Maher
Before electric turns the lights on and while the stages are still cold, you open the large elephant doors, do your morning walkthrough, strategize, and get your carts out of your truck and set up for the day.
The Video Assist Operator’s job involves setting up video villages, routing signals to other departments, recording camera and sound signals for playback, and more recently, streaming video and sound signals in sync to every director, producer, and crew member who needs to be able to see what is being shot. Most of the time, you’re a one-person department on set, so there is no time to waste. You have to plan where you’re going to land and hope you’ve picked the perfect spot for your director and producers to work. Hook it all up and go! Setting all this up typically is the first ten to fifteen minutes of the day.
Doing all of this work typically requires three carts, each weighing approximately 200 lbs–500 lbs. First, the main cart is compact. It’s equipped with a fully engineered computer system to run QTAKE, AJA routers to support four or more camera/video and sound inputs, A-D camera outputs, secondary village outputs, and all the cables; snakes; and other miscellaneous items necessary to get through the day. These setups are typically designed by the most skilled and OCD engineers in the business and are designed to make use of every nook and cranny of space. Often you feel like the pit crew at the Indy 500 or at the Grand Prix because you need to be able to plug in and reset at a moment’s notice. Five minutes to move your all three carts or bang! You’re dead!
The second cart is the director’s cart, better known as a “Village,” and it is outfitted with three or four very expensive OLED monitors, an extra stand, and maybe even a robocup—if you’re fancy. This is all in order to provide the director with the tools they need to see and hear what’s happening on the set. Lastly, your third cart is for the producers so that they have a “Producers’ Village” of their own. This allows their own creative visions to be in a separate world from what’s going on in the director’s world. The two should not mix. Therefore, hooking up and servicing all three to your carts is a little like being a video and sound octopus, spreading out in many directions at a time. And that’s just with three carts; sometimes larger productions require additional carts. It can be physically overwhelming at times, especially when off-site, on location, or off road somewhere.
Prior to the pandemic, video assist work was fairly standardized. The job revolved around taking in audio/video signals for the purpose of servicing the rest of the set. You’d play back footage as needed, mostly as reference material for whomever needed it. While it could be a large workload, most of the time you knew what you were signing up for. COVID-19 completely changed our jobs as we knew them. The need for social distancing and new safety measures caused an acceleration of remote technology that has had a massive impact on Video Assist Operators.
Due to distancing restrictions imposed by COVID, the remainder of the crew can’t hover around video village like the old days. Instead, everyone else who needs a video feed gets an iPad setup. People working remotely and talent who need video in their trailers are usually given Apple TV’s. New people come and go all the time and they need to be streaming right along with everyone else. There are a lot more plates spinning in the air on any given day. The rest of the day is spent alternating between recordist, customer service, playback, emotional support person, creative consultant, and Apple Genius/IT specialist. Everyone on your set is watching and listening to the QTAKE feed, ready to get the day started and ended, and create Hollywood’s movie magic in-between.
All of this requires that the Video Assist Operator be a lot more involved in the minute-to-minute decision making than in the days before COVID. I’ve found myself on a first name basis with directors, showrunners, and executive producers a lot more than I did before the pandemic. By coordinating playback and communications among the top brass, I have had the wild privilege to be a fly on the wall and to be involved problem solving with these giants. We look over shots, sequences, and script changes for some of the best TV series and films in the business. Often the director or VFX team needs a quick mock-up and rendering to make sure that what we’ve been shooting is working. This means that the most-effective operators require multiple skill sets. Can you cut a few clips together? Can you do some on-the-spot VFX in a pinch? Can you figure out why one producer’s iPad just won’t seem to work? Great! Now can you do all of that while you’re also doing your regular recording, cataloging, playback, and streaming?
In a worst-case scenario, the cameras and crew may be on the move while you are required to stay behind and review footage with the director/producer/showrunner/etc. Once you are no longer needed, there’s a mad dash to get your three carts moved to the next location so production isn’t waiting on you! This is one example of why having a Y-7 Video Assist Utility working with you is crucial; they can help move the carts and set up while you are working on other tasks with above-the-line staff. Utilities are integral to the ability to run, patch cable, and troubleshoot technical issues while the operator is otherwise occupied.
For example, I once was crawling underneath the stage because I had lost my internet connection and had to re-run the cable right quick. It was early in the morning before anything had really started. I was solo on this show and didn’t have a Y-7 with me, but I thought I had a brief second to investigate it. So I’m under the stage when suddenly, I heard, “Where is the Video Assist? Where is Amber?” over the walkies. I popped up out of the middle of a starship stage like a hamster out of a hidey-hole, shouting, “I’m here!” I was covered in dust while the whole cast and crew were staring at me. The Executive Producer needed me to return immediately to do a comp, so I ran right up to do it, but I knew I still had to fix the cable, too. Working our jobs is to constantly be on call while on set. It’s very difficult to leave your cart, even to do another part of your job. Time management is key, managing expectations is key, and under-promising and over-delivering helps. Video assist responsibilities on set have grown beyond what is reasonable to ask of a single person and the amount of work is only increasing as technology develops and is incorporated into our workflows. We need a bigger team. Time is of the essence and a precious commodity on any large production. There’s too much at stake and this department is one of the worst places to cut corners. You are, in essence, cutting your directors and producers off from quality checking your film. Mistakes that are missed on set can cost a fortune to fix in post or reshoot later.
On Star Trek: Picard, there was a previous shot that we had recorded that was “obviously” not working with our new crane footage. If not fixed, talent would have to be flown back into the country and crew would have to go into a sixth day. Due to my previous VFX know-how, I was asked to perform a miracle and composite the two shots. I was able to mask, animate, render, and comp the previous shot together with the new one to work seamlessly. The whole crew held their breath while I worked. And when our showrunner gave it his nod of approval, everyone cheered. Our VFX Director patted me on the back then told me, “Do you know you just saved them about one year of your salary in what it would have taken to fix that shot?” This was only possible because I had the necessary support to do my job well on that show, but if I hadn’t been a part of the conversation because I’d been off fixing a broken cable or rebooting a router because there was no one to help me, the show would have paid through the nose for it.
And this isn’t an isolated incident. When I recently worked on Beverly Hills Cop 4, I was the Video Assist Utility and was able to make quick-reference video edits on the fly on my laptop, which were used by the Director to save time and to move on to the next shot quickly. It was very helpful to all involved. On Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom, the advanced video engineering technology at our fingertips was mind-blowing. Video assist worked together with the video wall engineers and camera technicians to “scan” actors in these LED video wall stages in order to “paste” them into the films. This is done live, as we’re shooting, while we comp or overlay it all together. Then I had to use a secure double-encrypted link from QTAKE to stream it all to the above-the-line team in Japan and across the world. Video assist has revolutionized the entire creative process! When I worked on Space Jam: New Legacy, we were getting the motion capture composites and overlaying them live over the actors. This allowed the director and actors to see the 3D cartoons playing basketball together in real time while filming. Conversely, while working on Star Wars: Skeleton Crew, we used entire rooms of 180° video walls where the set is placed inside the walls, and the walls change the imagery while rolling. This means a green screen and huge sets are no longer needed. The backgrounds are baked into the picture and look seamless on camera. Video assist has revolutionized the entire creative process!
What we can do now is amazing, but it is additional work. With the new demands of technology and the current shooting culture of wanting to see a quasi-final concept of the finished product while shooting it, extra demands are being made in the video assist world. After recently being part of Local 695’s LED wall training at Stargate Studios and going through ROE Academy’s LED wall certification program, I realized that modern Video Engineers and Video Assist Operators need multiple skill sets comprised of many visual components. You need to understand camera processes, video editing, VFX workflows, color timing, and video engineering to get these walls working in the camera frame. The technology available continues to get more complex and our skill sets as Video Engineers have to grow along with it. Yet getting additional staffing on any given production can be like pulling teeth!
On a conceptual level, all of this isn’t that different from what Video Assist Operators have always traditionally done. We’ve always been responsible for recording all the video and reference audio signals, cataloging that media for later reference, and playing it back for all parties. It’s the massive scope of what this work entails that has grown in a huge way.
Video engineering is entering a new renaissance right now. It is a very complex visual field now in palette which you collaborate with directors and producers continually. Your computer is your palette and you assist the directors to create these new worlds instantly while recording. You will need to be more ingenious in order to succeed. All of this happens from your three little carts, on a film set wherever in the world you are, with your little wheels pushing around your long octopus cables, running like the wind to get it all plugged in, streamed, and working before the camera sets up. It’s a whole new exciting game out there now. This is the next level of what’s happening, where video engineering is headed and we are all very much needed on set to perform these duties.
I’m certain the role of video assist will continue to change in the coming years. Evolving technology and innovative filmmaking practices will drive the importance of more Video Engineers working on set. I have no doubt that we’ll see more responsibility in the future and, as someone who loves her job, I’m looking forward to all the new ways that I’ll be able to contribute to the filmmaking process. Expanding the video department and integrating the Video Engineers working in this particular specialist field to that of creative director/collaborator is in my opinion needed to be made to set a precedent for us to follow. If you are working alongside directors, conceptualizing the shots with showrunners and needed to do on-the-spot edits for post production to follow the director’s instruction, you are in essence an integral part of the creative team. There are lots of new lines of creative work being done here. The video engineering and technical challenges that we experience on set currently are very demanding intellectually and creatively. You are often the right hand of any director. We are heavily relied on and support the entire crew with our streams now. By defining these new technology roles, this will potentially enlist more Local 695 positions, it adds a layer of quality to any project. There are truly no downsides to expanding the video assist engineering team. We sometimes are the video wizards who create a magic miracle from our carts. We are the troubleshooters, the fixers, and the quality checkers needed while in production. We are the one-two stop shoppe and backbone for production. Therefore, our value needs to be known. Long gone are the days of just pressing the record and playback buttons. Our technology is ever-expanding, increasing, and manning up our departments is the most financially responsible decision that a production can make! On any given day, we can catch errors that could cost production hundreds of thousands of dollars and ample headaches.
Otherwise, how much time and money is one willing to lose by not having a proper video assist team here servicing the cast and crew, streamlining the creative process for all. Not delegating enough manpower and funding in this department to function fluidly, well … that my friend is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.